Afrika Bambaataa (Transcript)
Planet Rock up and under
Adam Kampe: You're listening to "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force. For a web feature that ties into the latest issue of NEA Arts, I spoke with one of the founders of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa. Bam, as he's known, was born and raised in the South Bronx. It was here, in this New York City Borough, in the mid to late 70s and early 80s, where the genesis of hip-hop culture took place. Bam was kind enough to sit down with me for a long-distance chat from his home in New York City.
Growing up, your mother had a pretty eclectic record collection. What did you listen to?
Afrika Bambaataa: We listened to all style of music. I mean especially first giving props to all the Motown, the Stax, Volt sound that they was giving out. Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Edith Piaf, Barbara Streisand, a lot of the pop records, going to many of the shows at The Brooklyn Fox, Murray the K, Apollo Theater where you could see ten groups or 15 groups for just $5 at that time was phenomenal.
Well, it was really listening to James Brown, Sly, George Clinton, and the Jackson Five, and the Temptations and all that, that's what really hit it and then hearing the early MCs of the radio, whether it be Eddie O'Jay, Frankie Crocker, Gary Byrd, Cousin Brucie, just hearing all those people at that time always kept an interest in me.
Adam Kampe: You're hearing all this different kind of music on the radio and things are slowly starting to change in the neighborhoods within the Bronx. You've got DJ Kool Herc on the west side in the West Bronx, you're in the South Bronx and you're being influenced by music from all over the world, including Africa because I know you spent some time there when you were younger. Within a number of years hip-hop is born. Can you explain how the music developed and how it all began?
Afrika Bambaataa: We didn't have no name for hip-hop for a good while; we just was doing what we was doing. Some said the "go off," the "boing-yoing," the "get down," but we had Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, myself, and a lot of others that was coming out after us. We just was doing the do. And we started having our MCs, the Keith "Cowboy" from the Furious Five to the Soul Sonic to the Cosmic Force to the Funky Four+One with DJ Breakout. We was doing our different things in different areas of the Bronx. We all had systems and we was playing on our side and then you had Herc who was on the West Bronx doing what he was doing on this side and everything came together when we start hearing the cliché raps that Love Bug was saying do the hip-hop to hop to hop and Keith "Cowboy" was doing the hip-hop to hop. T he media started getting into it in the `80s, they was asking what we was calling this. I said we call these elements the DJs, the MCs, the B-boys, the aerosol writers and I said we call this a culture that we call hip-hop. And, that's when the term started being used as a whole culture movement.
Adam Kampe: You've obviously seen the evolution of the music from the early `70s till now, 2013. How has the art form in your eyes and the culture of hip-hop evolved?
Afrika Bambaataa: Well, I've been DJ'ing really since 1970, real young. It was amazing to see in the early stages from where it came from just playing from one turntable, playing through two turntables and the mixers and adding echo chambers, adding our own types of speakers and sound systems, adding your lights, your light game or your laser beam taped to it so we could have a portable discotheque taking it to a high school gym or a college gym or a center, to where you're playing in clubs to now we're playing from city to city, country to country, town to town. And, seeing from where it started in the black community now is a whole international movement and a culture called hip-hop. And, that's amazing saying it goes from there, from a little house party straight to a stadium.
Because some people think it's just like oh this phenomenon came and it blew up overnight. Nah, it was a lot of work even with the punk rockers it was a lot of work to get that happening all over the place. Hip-hop and punk rock, new wave, it took awhile coming from the CBGBs, coming from the hip-hop places in the Bronx for both cultures to start a movement around the world, and people started getting punked out or funked out or hip-hopped out.
Adam Kampe: In 1984, your crossover collaboration with John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, "World Destruction;" that was two years before Run DMC and Aerosmith came out with "Walk this Way." I was just curious what the effect you think that crossover collaboration had on music?
Afrika Bambaataa: Oh, well it was definitely the first getting into hip-hop and rock and they definitely took me around the world for two years off of that one record. So it was something strong to work with the King of Punk. And we was way ahead of our times along with Boy George and Culture Club when they did "War and Peace" and there was a thing on MTV where they pushed out "World Destruction" like crazy on it because at that time they wasn't playing a lot of black artists on MTV. Epic Records because of Michael Jackson forced them to start playing that otherwise they wasn't gonna get anymore of they music. When we wrote the song, I wrote it from seeing the Orson Welles "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow" about Nostradamus. And this was a song we was putting out there and Johnny definitely gave a strong deliverance. Even in the video he rocked it.
Adam Kampe: So just shifting gears back in time, in 1982, a couple years before World Destruction with Johnny Rotten, you and the Soul Sonic Force blew up the charts with "Planet Rock." Can you talk about where that song came from?
Afrika Bambaataa: Well, that came from the inner thoughts of the great universe smacking me in my face and working with my great producers Arthur Baker and John Robie and with my record label Mr. Tom Silverman and putting it all together and the rest is history. And it came from major records that I used to play that I put together, which was Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Expressand "Numbers" and Captain Sky's "Super Sporm" and Babe Ruth's "The Mexican" and mashing it up became the electro-funk sound that just blew up and brought all these other styles whether it was the Baile funk, the Rio funk, the Miami bass, to the hip house, the techno pop, all this came from the vibrations that I was getting from people like Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gary Numan, George Clinton, and Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and mashed it up, and even John Carpenter's movies, the Halloweenmovies. Hearing all these electronic sounds and Dick Hyman, the moog sound that was happening. I said man, I looked around, I ain't seen no black groups like that I said got to come out with this sound and thus became the birth of the electro-funk sound.
Planet Rock up and hot
Touching on the future of hip-hop and its mainstream acceptance, it's really, really remarkable that currently you are a visiting scholar at Cornell University, which I doubt a lot people know houses I believe one of the largest if not the largest hip-hop collections of hip-hop archives from vinyl records to historical photographs in North America. Can you talk about that visiting post and what exactly that entails?
Afrika Bambaataa: It's visiting the students at certain times each year and we be talking about hip-hop culture, we be talking about what led up to hip-hop. The first time I went there., we had all the different groups of pioneers in hip-hop that was out there, like a big rally it was. Then they started picking me, I guess, for what I was dropping the knowledge on. And then when I came there the next time I took them to rap and hip-hop before the word hiphop. So we took them back into time where they seen videos on YouTube, so they might see Tony Joe White dropping his rap on "Polk Salad Annie." They might see Sly Stone dropping his rap on his first early album. We showed them James Brown giving his rap with "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud,"or "Brother Rap." We showed them George Clinton doing the "Nubian Nut". We even took them back in further time with the "Hi-De-Ho" and Cab Calloway, to Shirley Ellis and "The Name Game" and "The Clapping Song." You know, showing the different styles of rap starting from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, even seeing people doing beat-box with their mouths and things like that, showing that this has always been here, but it went through different changes. The country-western with "Guitarzan" and all those types of songs that was happening with Ray Stevens and all those, so it's just showing the different and so-called black and white people, I hate using them terms, but these human beings was all doing these different styles of rapping, but we didn't call it rap at that time.
Adam Kampe: I'm just curious, in the early days did you have any sense that the music would become such a phenomenon both in terms of popularity and cultural influence?
Afrika Bambaataa: Well, we had a mission to get it there. I didn't know that it was going to get so super big, but my mission was to get it to as many areas as we could travel to get to. So as we was traveling and going from different countries and towns and cities, then when we started speaking to other people in many of these different cities, I was telling them because a lot of them was like in different countries whether it be Germany or France was trying to rap like Americans of the United States and I told them no, no, no. You speak your own native language, rap about your issues, and rap around anything you feel that you want to rap in the universe, but speak your native language and yes, if you want to use some English words or American type of clichés or add to it, do it. And once they started catching that groove and how to do it, now we've got international stars all over the world in many of the respective countries on our great planet.
Adam Kampe: And what do you think the legacy of hip-hop will be, or is on, American music?
Afrika Bambaataa: Well, the legacy will definitely be that this music has crossed more barriers than many of the politicians on the planet and, bringing people together who would never even barely talk to each other, of different racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds, where they just love hip-hop. So you could see them all intermingling with each other with the whole culture and they're showing some love and peace. You know, you've still got your problems in it, but you're seeing many people around the world that might have had a lot of hate or something or just didn't want to be among these other people are speaking with each other now because of this hip-hop, because it's a culture, it's a movement.
Planet Rock fades to black
Adam Kampe: That was musician and legendary innovator, Afrika Bambaataa, discussing the origin and the legacy of hip-hop. If you'd like to learn more about other pioneers of different art forms, please be sure to check out the rest of the latest issue of NEA Arts.
Thanks for listening.